The History of the Domestic Cat
The house cat boasts a reputation for independence and aloofness which belies the notion that it is actually domesticated at all. It is often suggested that nobody really owns a cat and someone once said that “A dog is a man’s best friend. A cat is a cat’s best friend”. It is true that cats are independent creatures. They can’t be trained like dogs and they are quite capable of living a feral life without human help.
But regardless of their independent ways, most cats do appreciate human company and human beds! They are domesticated animals and have been so for a surprisingly long time.
The Feline Riddle
It is only recently that scientists have been able to solve the riddle of when cats became domesticated. It has been a difficult task because the skeletons of small wild cats and domesticated cats are so similar that it can be impossible for archaeologists to tell them apart. Some clues emerged when archaeologists discovered a cat’s jawbone in Cyprus which dated back over 8,000 years. Cats were not indigenous to the island and it is unlikely that anyone would have transported wild cats there, so the cat concerned must have been domesticated.
In 2004, an even older skeleton was found at a site in Cyprus. The cat had been deliberately buried with a human and so was certainly domesticated. This cat dated back 9,500 years.
Unravelling the Mystery
A study which was published in the research journal Science unravelled more of the puzzle using genetic analysis. The authors of the study explained that all domestic cats are descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris. Cats were first domesticated in the Near East and the researchers feel that their domestication could have started 12,000 years ago. This was when the first agricultural societies began to prosper in the region.
When humans were predominantly hunters it was dogs which were of greatest use and so dogs were domesticated long before cats came on the scene. Cats became useful to people when crops were grown and then stored. The stores of grain were invaded by mice and these had to be dealt with. Wild cats were attracted to the settlements because of the abundance of mice and the human residents appreciated their visits.
The researchers believe that the cats would have domesticated themselves. They would have simply invited themselves in. The people in the villages would have preferred the cats with friendly traits and this meant that over time, the cat evolved into the various breeds that we know today.
Revered or Reviled?
Cats were revered in Egyptian and Roman society and yet came to be demonised in Europe during the Middle Ages. The human race has always displayed a certain ambivalence towards cats which could be why they remain characterised by such aloof personalities. They like living with us but they are never quite sure that they have been completely accepted and so they don’t commit in the way that dogs do.
12,000 years of domestication has failed to remove the independent streak from felines but that is part of their charm. It is the cat’s way or the highway as anyone who shares their life with a cat will know!